Family Man
review by Gregory Avery, 29 December 2000

As Jack Campbell, wheeler-dealer and president of a New York City financial institution, Nicolas Cage struts into his first scenes in The Family Man with just the right amount of upturned-nose attitude and an air of hubris born of luxe, power, and money. A bachelor and ladies man, he swings into his walk-in closet to pick out his clothes for the day while rousing himself by singing gusty Italian opera, with or without an accompanying recording, pushing his chest out and swinging his arms to the music. We have no doubt that this guy is invincible, or at least thinks he is.

On Christmas Eve, he informs his staff that they will have to come in to work the next day in order to close a deal, but that, for their inconvenience, they will all get to share in a part of the profits which will run somewhere in the neighborhood of "ten zeros." Jack then goes home, goes to bed, and wakes up the next morning -- in a middle-class suburban house, with two kids and a wife, Kate (Tea Leoni), contentedly sleeping beside him. Kate is the woman whom Jack would have married, thirteen years earlier, had he not gone off on that internship with Barclays in London. Wot hoppened?

The previous evening, Jack had an encounter with a mysterious stranger (the excellent Don Cheadle, in but a fleeting appearance in the film), and told him, "I got everything I wanted." Fine, the stranger replied, but be forewarned, whatever happens next, "You brought it on yourself." Then the transformation: doomed to suburbia!

At first, the film's regard for Jack's new milieu, and the accouterments therein, seems to be simply a reflection of the character's own horror-struck reactions. He can no longer pamper himself by buying new top-line designer suits; he must endure the indignities of changing diapers. His next-door neighbor and friend (Jeremy Piven) keeps tacky drinking mugs on the wall behind his home bar, along with a photo of a bowling trophy win. After a while, it seems like the filmmakers feel the same way towards these people as Jack does, namely, that they aren't any good because they have to live within their means and don't always show good taste.

Jack also finds out that he no longer works on Wall Street, but as a salesman at a tire outlet run by his father-in-law, "Big Ed" (Harve Presnell): he finds a bottle that the "other" Jack kept hidden in a desk drawer at work. But it turns out that the "other" Jack was also a good man, a good friend, one who came through for other people in times of need, and who has a wife who is deeply in love with him. It takes Jack from Christmas to Valentine's Day to figure all this out -- after all, the mysterious stranger said that this was all only a "glimpse."

This is the sort of material that you would expect to curdle before your very eyes in a matter of minutes, and, indeed, it spells out its handful of simple truths rather baldly: don't wreck a good thing once you have it, appreciate the fact that you have a wife and family, and money doesn't mean everything. But after we've had a chance to revel in Jack's uptown lifestyle (exquisitely rendered by production designer Kristi Zea, who worked on many of Jonathan Demme's films) and react (smugly) to his change in income bracket, we find out that the people in the "other" Jack's suburbia are actually more in touch with themselves and with their values. (Jack is even counseled against having a fling with a woman who practically throws herself at him.) The picture doesn't seem to be advising that we embrace mediocrity and the type of dead-end life that often results in boredom and frustration (and that a lot of people would dream of fleeing from), but it seems to come close.

And, sometimes, simple truths can be reiterated in a way that makes them hard to dismiss, and that, ultimately, is what happens in this movie. The fact that it also has Nicolas Cage's best performance in years also helps, a lot. He shows how Jack skillfully bluffs his way through situations that he is supposed to be familiar with using the same acumen that he would have used to get ahead in his financial job, and, in the process of picking up on how to act like a husband and father, he gradually comes to realize that, not only can he live like this, but that he rather enjoys it. Cage's performance shows how something deep and inexplicable is touched within Jack's character. And the film also takes an unexpected turn, becoming a romance where Jack falls in love all over again with a woman who had disappeared from his life, and how Kate, after some dismaying blunders and mistakes on Jack's part, falls in love with him all over again, as well.

The picture may be comprised of a pinch of A Christmas Carol and a good handful of It's a Wonderful Life, but Jack's return to his previous life turns out to be this film's equivalent of the "nightmare" sequence that James Stewart's George Bailey dashed through. And Nicolas Cage, working again at the peak of his abilities, is able to put over Jack's change of heart and salvation in the end.

Directed by:
Brett Ratner

Starring:
Nicolas Cage
Tea Leoni
Jeremy Piven
Harve Presnell
Makenzie Vega
Mary Beth Hurt
Don Cheadle

Written by:
David Diamond 
Davis Weisman

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